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Law meant to boost economy, construction

Friday, December 31, 2010

SV/SJ Business Journal

This opinion article by Senator Joe Simitian appeared in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal

By Joe Simitian

One way to build the economy back up is to take that expression literally—build things.  Constructing offices, research parks, houses, schools, roads, bridges, and transit lines puts people back to work and money back into circulation. And the sooner, the better.

Starting January 1, a new state law will remove potential obstacles to those projects. Legislation I authored in 2010 makes it harder to delay construction projects with endless appeals, abuse of the process or frivolous complaints, while at the same time ensuring that developments are studied and essential environmental protections are preserved.

In boosting the economy, timeliness matters. The federal stimulus program sought projects that were “shovel ready,” with plans drawn and environmental reviews completed. Some private developers, eager to turn the sluggish economy into an opportunity to hurry their projects through, or around, environmental assessments, promoted an approach more akin to “just shovel already.”

Not for the first time, pressure to set aside the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) grew as the economy shrank. The California State Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee, which I chair, received a number of proposals to simply brush aside environmental reviews to push projects along. I couldn’t support that.

But after saying “no” to such proposals, I thought I ought to figure out what I could responsibly say “yes” to. After all, the development community had a point about the potential for opponents of a worthy project to force costly delays even after project approval.

The bill that resulted, Senate Bill 1456, earned bipartisan support, and was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Provisions in the law encourage mediation. The bill makes it more likely that people will sit down and work out their differences before suing. If a challenge is taken to court, it will be resolved more quickly.

Johnny-come-lately-opponents will be out of luck. An organization formed to overturn approval of a project must have at least one member who raised the objections before the approval was granted. Government bodies will have more latitude to decide that certain issues do not need to be restudied as projects are modified: For example, parking need not be re-evaluated because a plant’s potential water consumption has changed.

And when a project’s opponents just can’t accept a legitimate defeat, and turn up yet again in court, a judge may impose a $10,000 penalty for a frivolous lawsuit.

Too often, the environment and the economy are presented as opposites in a zero-sum game in which advances for one come at the expense of the other. It’s a false dichotomy.

A healthy environment and a vibrant economy are not competing ideals, but complementary ones. California’s attractiveness as a business destination lies in part in the natural beauty – mountains, ocean, delta, deserts – that lie just beyond the cities that are the heart of its economy. And within its developed areas, business leaders and rank-and-file employees alike want to live in pleasant neighborhoods, breathe clean air, and commute to work as conveniently as possible.

Environmental regulations can protect that quality of life without holding builders and businesses hostage to anyone who dreams up a fanciful reason to file a CEQA appeal. Senate Bill 1456 is a commonsense way to expedite worthy projects and create jobs without compromising environmental quality.

This new law reflects what Californians want – a state that provides a place where we can find work and share in general prosperity, a place where we can live in comfort and good health, a place where we can savor the splendid natural environment around us.

Joe Simitian represents the 11th State Senate District, which includes portions of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.